When I started as a Media Specialist in 2002, I worked to create a comfortable learning space that I felt reflected the needs of my students and staff. I developed a balanced, diversified collection that was inclusive of multiple cultures, religions, and family structures. I was feeling pretty good about the job I was doing for many years.
Fast forward to 2015 when I attended the “Teaching With and For Social Justice” session at the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching (ECET2) Conference in Seattle. The session, led by Rosalie Arndt (@RosalieArndt) and Joseph Bolz (@JosephBolz), challenged my thinking about what it meant to move past diversity and become a teacher whose practice was grounded in social justice. Was just having a collection of books with multiracial characters meeting the needs of my students? Did the month-long display for Hispanic Heritage or Black History Month or Women’s History provide enough opportunity for students and staff to explore these topics? Were my book clubs that focused on popular titles exposing students to stories and situations they could relate to?
The answers to those questions was “No.” I realized that in not meeting the needs of certain students I was doing a disservice to all students. Students in my library would learn about other cultures only by the happy accident of choosing a book off a display and all students would lose out on fully understanding the rich culture of America and themselves.
“(I)t is not merely a matter of tolerance, but of learning from the struggles and stories of our fellow citizens and finding our better selves in the process.”
George W Bush speaking at the Dallas Shooting Memorial Service, 12 July 2016
Going forward from that session, I have made a conscious effort to change my practice and hope that many others will as well. I am far from an expert and while there is no one right way to do this, here are my suggestions.
- Teaching with Social Justice starts with explicit planning. Aggressive teacher evaluation systems have led some teachers to believe that teaching to the district’s instructional calendar is sacrosanct. Teachers need to develop the confidence to deviate from the calendar and look for supplemental materials that promote all cultures.
- Teaching Social Justice needs to be infused into your entire curriculum. The history of the peoples of the US and the world did not just happen in a certain month of the year and should not be taught that way. At the same time, culturally responsive teaching is inclusive of the literature and contributions of all people to art, music, science, and technology- not just history.
- You are a product of your environment, but you’re not a prisoner to it. I was a white student that was raised in a predominately white neighborhood. I went to schools that were predominately white and my classes in college were filled with predominately white students. Like many, my behavior is shaped by my experiences. However, if I use this as an excuse to continue to approach teaching as I always have I am robbing all students of the enriched educational experience they deserve.
- No one is expected to be an expert on their own culture, much less someone else’s. A teacher I work with told me how uncomfortable it was for her in elementary school as the only African American child in her class. Her teacher would look to her for information about the cultures of all people of color. She was just a child, asking questions and learning along with the rest of the students. Teachers need to model learning for their students. Ask questions, read articles and books, and be reflective about their own practice.
My most important discovery was that I needed to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’m filling in the gaps of my own education and experiences to do what’s best for my students. I’m learning how to ask questions and have difficult conversations with my peers. I am on the path to finding my better self, moving past tolerance to social justice for all.